When I was first asked to review the AMD FirePro W7000 video card, I was eager to compare it against my existing ATI FirePro V4800. It’s clearly not fair comparing a $200 card against a $1000 card, but I was curious to see what kind of an upgrade it would be. I should mention that the W7000 is billed by AMD as a high end professional 3D card, and the V4800 is an entry level card. I will be making the comparison primarily from the point of view of a 3D CAD (SolidWorks 2013) user.
First, let’s get the specs of the W7000 out of the way.
Price: ~$800 – 1000
Memory: 4 GB GDDR5
Bandwidth: 154 GB
Speed: 2.4 Tflops single precision, 152 Gflops double precision floating point
Slots Req’d: 1 (PCIe 3.0 x16)
Power: Supplemental 6 pin
Max Power: 150 W
Connections: 4x DisplayPort 1.2
Max Res.: 4096×2160 DisplayPort 1.2, 2560×1600 DisplayPort 1.1
Stereo 3d: Yes
Features: DirectX 11, OpenGL 4.2, OpenCL 1.2, Shader Model 5.0, CrossFire Pro
Warranty: 3 years
The card I received appears to be an engineering/test sample. It was not in retail packaging, and didn’t include the items AMD lists as coming with the retail card. The retail package contents for the W7000, according to the AMD website are:
AMD FirePro W7000 workstation graphics card
- Quick Start Reference Guide
- AMD CrossFire Pro connector
- 2x DisplayPort to DVI adapters
This list will be significant later in the review.
To read more about this card and others from AMD, you can see a FirePro comparison at this link. To read more detail about the W7000, follow this link. For comparison, specs on the V4800 are listed here.
Just to address an obvious question right out of the gate, ATI was purchased by AMD, and seems to be in the course of rebranding the entire line to AMD. You will still see both ATI and AMD product names in the list, as evidenced by the two cards in this review.
DisplayPort (DP) Connectivity
The first thing we need to talk about is DisplayPort technology. The DisplayPort connector adds another to the list of attempted standard video connectors we’ve had to deal with through the years. I have a pair of perfectly serviceable LCD displays that are 6 and 8 years old. I bought them back when LCD displays were at least twice the price they are today. They look good, have lots of mechanical adjustments, and keep on working. They have connections for component video, S-video, DVI, and VGA. They also have lots of convenient USB and card reader connections. One is a 24” 16:9 ratio, and the other is a 21” 4:3 ratio. The monitors are old, but perfectly functional. Much like some review authors I know.
The problem is that my monitors do not have DisplayPort capability. There are two advantages as I understand DisplayPort technology. One is that it can handle higher resolutions, as you can see in the specs. The other is that it can handle longer cable runs. Neither of these is an issue in this test, or in most high end engineering graphics situations, unless you are running a projector for design reviews. Few projectors have the kind of resolution that DisplayPort is capable of. DisplayPort is also able to transfer more than just video information, which might be important if you have speakers integrated with your display device, as is the case in televisions or digital projectors.
The real advantage of DisplayPort that isn’t listed in any of the technical sites about the technology is that the connector is much smaller. It’s roughly the size and shape of a HDMI connector that you would use for your television.
The jury remains out as to if DisplayPort is ever going to become a pervasive standard. For now it seems to be stalled in the high end esoteric computer video. The reading I have done does not seem to suggest that DP is going to overtake HDMI in the home theater realm. It seems DP will probably remain just where it is today, another red-headed stepchild in the long legacy of red-headed stepchildren in video connector standards – the Beta to HDMI’s VHS.
If you check a site such as Dell, you have the option to spec workstation class machines with nVidia Quadro cards (all have DVI and DP combinations) or AMD FirePro cards with only DisplayPort connections. Looking again at the Dell site for monitors shows that there are no Dell monitors with DP connections available at all.
This is why you will find a DP => DVI adapter in the retail packaging for the W7000. Not all professional quality monitors come with DisplayPort connections. DVI and VGA are pretty standard. So why would you buy a $1000 video card that only offers a connection that your existing monitors might not have? The DP => DVI adapter cost me $25- 40 at a local computer store. This is the real geek store, Best Buy doesn’t carry this kind of thing (in fact, they didn’t have any idea what I was taking about – they don’t sell any DP monitors either).
The Lenovo ThinkPad W530, which I reviewed recently, included a mini DisplayPort out connection. It’s a connection that makes sense, although again, it hasn’t caught on. The mini DP connector is about the size of a USB Type B connector. It’s much smaller and easier to work with than either VGA or DVI. Again, the arguments of higher resolution and cable length don’t make a lot of sense here, but the space and convenience arguments do.
A video card that has connections for 4 monitors, and yet only takes up one slot on your computer’s back panel seems better than taking up 2 slots for 4 DVI connectors. Maybe video card makers and monitor makers should team up on this DP standard. Or just admit that the standard isn’t going anywhere, and start shipping cables that go directly from DP to DVI without more expensive and pointless adapters. Call it mini DVI instead of DisplayPort.
The developers of the DisplayPort standard understood that they were going to have an uphill compatibility battle, so they made DP backwards compatible with both VGA and DVI. This means that you can create adaptors (or theoretically hybrid cables) that allow you to connect between the different standards. Adaptors and backwards compatibility appear to be what is keeping DisplayPort technology from disappearing altogether.
New Build or Upgrade
One of the issues that will affect your decision to purchase this video card will likely turn out to be whether you are buying one in a pre-built machine, or you are looking to upgrade a current card in an existing machine. Most of what follows deals with integrating this card into an existing (6 month old) system, so will apply mainly to upgraders. My experience with upgrading this card was that it was not the usual trivial task of just replacing a card and rebooting. There are additional bios and power connection requirements that you will need to make before you can be sure this card will be compatible with an existing system.
Let’s move on to installing the card on a CAD computer. This computer was built by Xi Computer in May 2012, and was based on the Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard. This mobo has 2 PCIe x16 slots capable of handling long video cards. I installed it while the V4800 was still in place. Initially I was just hoping for a plug-and-play installation, but that wasn’t to be the case.
To get the card going, I called the Xi Computer support team. This is the second excellent support call I’ve had this week, the first being with the Lenovo people. It turns out the jump between PCIe 2.0 and PCIe 3.0 requires a bios flash. The bios on the Asus board was from April, and by October, several updates had become available.
Supplementary Power Connection
After the bios flash, the card still wasn’t producing any results. With a little more research it turns out that the W7000 requires supplemental power. Fortunately, the Xi had several 6 pin power connectors tucked away in the bottom of the chassis. Once this was attached, and the machine rebooted, the W7000 showed up in the Device Manager.
The AMD FirePro W7000 is capable of using the CrossFire system. CrossFire is a technology for using multiple graphics cards in a single computer to improve performance. The parallel technology in nVidia cards is SLI. In order to make use of CrossFire, you need two AMD CrossFire capable cards from the same generation and a CrossFire bridge connector. nVidia’s SLI requires matching cards from a similar sub-series, making CrossFire somewhat more flexible.
The ATI FirePro V4800 that I already had in my computer is a low end card, and not CrossFire capable. I don’t know anyone who uses SLI or CrossFire, even in higher end CAD systems. My feeling after using this card is that it would probably not be much benefit over a single good quality card for most CAD work. Possibly for the high end of very large assemblies with a lot of visual requirements like sections and transparency it would be a benefit. In any case, multiple card arrangements was not part of my tests here.
Researching Video Glitches
Video glitches were one of the considerations I used to justify the purchase of a new computer, but unfortunately I settled for a low end video card. When rotating the SolidWorks screen after a popup toolbar had appeared, the only portion of the display that rotated was the small area where the popup toolbar had been. Everything else remained frozen. This made it hard to work with the software. I tested this with different video cards from different vendors and different drivers, proving the glitch was not due to a card or driver problem. It turns out this is a conflict between SolidWorks and the Windows non-Aero display settings such that it works ok with a pure Aero theme, but may exhibit this bug if you make certain customizations to performance settings.
Another glitch I noticed with the V4800 that disappeared with the W7000 was that many right mouse button menus in Firefox would not display consistently. They would appear and disappear as you moved the mouse over them. With the W7000 installed, the RMB menus are consistently visible.
For reference the default driver that installed automatically when the machine recognized the card was 8.982.2. The driver recommended by SolidWorks (and available on their System Requirements site) at the time of this writing is 8.982.8.1000. I have no complaints about this driver.
A simple benchmark that gives you a quick estimate of your hardware’s capability is the Windows Experience Index. You probably do not want to rely on it exclusively, but it has the advantage of being ubiquitous (included in Windows Vista and 7), and it is also immediately available. To find the WEI on your computer, go to Start>Control Panel>System.
When the Xi system that I am using to review the FirePro W7000 had the V4800 in it, the WEI was 7.0. At that point, the video card was definitely the weakest link on the machine. With the W7000, the WEI jumped to 7.8. With this new change, the components in the computer were better balanced, all scoring about the same.
A second benchmark I used is fairly subjective, but easy to demonstrate. In SolidWorks, one of the display functions that taxes the video card is called Ambient Occlusion, a simulation of shadows the part would cast on itself based on ambient lighting. While rotating the view, the shadows disappear, but as soon as you stop rotating, they are recalculated. The measure in this case is how long it takes to recalculate the shadows.
The effect appears subtle, but on some machines, it takes several seconds to recalculate. The Lenovo ThinkPad I reviewed recently took approximately 1/2 second to redisplay the shadows. On this Xi box with the W7000 in place, it is nearly instantaneous. It is certainly not manually measurable.
I would include the SolidWorks Performance Test results here, except for problems I reported with the test itself in the Lenovo review (if you don’t have a Professional or Premium license, the benchmark keeps asking you to reactivate your license in order to run the rendering portion of the benchmark). Plus, the reported values themselves seem to be of dubious value.
The Passmark benchmark scores have to be understood in comparison to something else. So for example, the Lenovo ThinkPad (laptop) score was in the neighborhood of 2000. The Xi blows this score away, which you would expect from a high end desktop rig. The overall score just serves as a reference.
What we are looking at in this review is not the overall system, however, it’s the video card. For that we want to see the 2D and 3D scores. Compared to other computers with the same processor, this machine was slightly better than half of other computers in the 2D graphics mark, and very close to the top of the 3D graphics mark. As the charts are displayed, the tested computer is at the bottom of the list. Any entry with a negative percentage was that much slower than the tested computer. Any entry with a positive percentage was faster than the tested computer.
If you are looking to buy a computer with the AMD FirePro W7000 already installed, you will not regret your decision to include this card. This is a great 3D CAD video card, very fast, and solid in these tests. Of course this assumes you have either monitors with DisplayPort connections or adapters (which run $25-40 each) for each monitor.
If you are looking to retrofit this card into an existing machine, you have to make sure to have several things in place:
- DisplayPort capable monitors or adapters
- a power supply that can handle the additional 150 W load
- an available internal 6 pin (two rows of 3 pins) power connector
- an available PCIe x16 slot with room for an extended card
- a bios updated to handle PCIe 3.0
The DisplayPort only connectivity of this card allows the card to stay compact, and still support 4 monitors, but may also make it less accessible to people with monitors that do not support that type of connection.